I remember I was reading a book. I can’t say how the book came to me—why a passerby decided to discard the dog-eared Western in such an empty place. Maybe he left it on top of his car at the last rest stop, and it had taken flight when the car hit 70, flapped its card stock covers to see if it were in fact no novel but a bird, then fell hard to the blacktop, an Icarus in pulp. Or maybe an amateur lit critic became so furious with the awful writing that he hurled the book out the window, the sudden rush of air from the open passenger side window causing the car to jerk right, which upsets his wife who is tensely at the wheel. In this scenario, his name is Harry and hers is Janice and the hurling of the book unlocks all sorts of latent animosity between the two, which pours out into a nasty in-transit quarrel all the way to Spokane. My imagination wanders for lack of stimulation.
Whatever caused the book to be so terminally put aside by its owner, somehow it was still intact when it came to rest. Tattered but together. That can’t be said for most things around here, myself included. A library I am not. I’m a blink. I’m a long drag off a disposable coffee cup. A place where millions have been but few remember being. Normally a paperback this size would settle into one of the grooves that the automobiles have worn into me over the years, and the next driver to come along wouldn’t consider the novel worth the slight swerve necessary to avoid it.
Beneath a hundred rubber tires it would disintegrate like a radioactive atom, split into half again and again until each page was not part of the whole, but its own story suspended in whatever context it brought with it on the page. If you think there’s some beauty in the image of a 300-page dime-store novel exploding into one hundred and fifty pieces on the United States Interstate Highway System, a Western no less, in a western state, then let me tell you that you are correct. I’ve seen it and I know. The book becomes a white tumbleweed that rolls over and over until all its sentences are snagged by barbed wire fence.
But brilliant destruction was not the fate of this book. Instead, it skipped, cartwheeled and came to rest one foot on the safe side of my rumble strip, propped up against a green mile-marker with the number 233 written on it with white paint that gives off a fresh-snow sparkle when touched by headlights. Amazingly, it came to rest right side up, turned to Chapter One. I began reading immediately. This was a rare opportunity to pass the time without resorting to my own fictions. Each passing car would disturb the air just enough to turn a page, and the traffic is light enough here that I wasn’t forced to skip ahead until four chapters in, by which time I was ready for the story to move a bit faster anyway.
The novel focused on a woman, which I thought must be unique based on the snippets of the countless macho Westerns that had blown by me over the years. She was called Boots, was 17 years old and had the misfortune of being born beautiful and poor in town on the rodeo circuit. Each bronco rider went through her life like a tractor trailer in top gear—she’d be drawn into them by the same laws of mass and speed that would later send her spinning to the side, spurned and chipped. Lord do I know that story.
The writing lacked craft, but the prose was earnest. While we’re designed by engineers and built by dump trucks, most highways are sentimental. Some even think themselves poets. I have my own vague theories about this—something having to do with spending our entire existence with humans going somewhere that looks like their dreams or leaving somewhere that hosts their nightmares, going to someone they love or leaving someone they love. Even my cousins who are pinched between gas stations and burger stands try to find meaning in everything, meaning in the orange sparks that explode from the cigarette butts tossed aside by commuters in the pre-dawn dark.
If that fire skipping through morning traffic is simply litter, then we’re all doomed. Same, too, for the empty swath of sagebrush that surrounds me. Were it truly the nothingness that so many people dismiss it as, then what else must we dismiss as nothing? But if we stop for a moment to search out it’s own beauty, then where else might we find beauty? But then, I’m biased. That land defines me more than anything else.
Since I never saw the cover of the book, I never knew its title. I started calling it The Next Rodeo Will Be Different. That’s probably because I relished in the scenes in which Boots was traveling between two rodeos, since they involved a highway—be that implicit or explicit.
When the crash happened, I was just to the part where Boots was being forced to give up her child, sired by a bull of a bull-rider. The kid was going to be raised in Omaha, which Boots was convinced would be death to the child, which would mean it would be the death of her. Nobody knew it, but she was aiming to make her escape. The next rodeo would be different, she told herself. She’d meet a man willing to take her and her kid in there, and then they’d be fit and the boy would grow up right.
I needed a page to be turned, and it was by a large semi truck that was speeding. I was thankful. But I didn’t get a sentence into the next page when a blue-gray Oldsmobile with expired plates came fast behind the truck and turned the page again. I was so horrified that the climax would be spoiled that I hardly noticed the car ram the back of the truck, causing it to sway side to side before toppling over and piercing me with a sharp piece of aluminum that had wrenched away from the rest of the truck. I barked in pain, then growled when the Oldsmobile slid sideways across my rumble strip and into the barbed wired fence ten feet off the road.
My empty world was filled with a black smoke that smelled of rubber melting in the sun, though it wasn’t hot. Somewhere there was a fire, and then in the distance there were sirens. In my pain I forgot about Boots and the next rodeo. When the smoke cleared the smell of rubber was overcome by something like sour bread. I could see now that a river of dry brown dog food flowed from the truck of the trailer, torn open like a bag of chips by a glutton.
You see a lot of accidents when you’re a highway. In fact, you get blamed for them– “highway deaths” they’re called, as if we’re the ones who make people drive 100 miles an hour with the elbows on the steering wheel. I have a brother in Montana who says old men come and nail white crosses next to him where people die, which is either morbid or meditative, depending on which one you ask. Others say loved ones will come out and spray paint on them, hearts and things like that.
But I’d never seen or heard of anything like this: a massive dog food spill sending kibbles by the ton into my grassy shoulder. It was such a mess they put me in the news, told everyone to come out to Mile 233 on Interstate 90 and take as much of the dog food as they could before it went bad. Which was a mess because there’s no parking, of course, on an Interstate, so the highway patrol had to start directing traffic around these people heaving as much of the smelly food into burlap sacks as they could.
With traffic brought to a near standstill by the commotion, my book, too, was entirely stalled. Boots was trapped there in the hall of a Catholic adoption agency, the bull-rider’s son pressed hard to her bosom. And that’s where the story was when a boy, maybe ten-years-old, fell behind his father who rushed to the free dog food and saw The Next Rodeo Will Be Different and picked it up, looked it over, and stuck it in his pocket. The same pocket where I would later see he also stuck every old bolt and gas cap he came across, as well.
I know I shouldn’t be upset about the book. I know the dog food spill should be what I remembered about that day. But I guess what other people remember about you and what you remember about yourself are never the same. For that kid, even when he’s grown up with kids of his own, I’ll always be the highway where he came and got dog food with his dad, after forgetting about the Western novel the moment he tossed it out with the rest of his strange mementos from a strange place.
*Daniel Person is a journalist living in Tacoma. He has written for publications across the West, including Outside Online, Cowboys & Indians, and High Country News. His story about Blackfeet tribal members using traditional practices to address PTSD was recently featured in the anthology Montana: Warts and All. He is also the co-author of the forthcoming 26 Songs in 30 Days: Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs and the Planned Promised Land in the Pacific Northwest. Lastly, though his employer wouldn’t use that term, he is news editor at Seattle Weekly.